Sunday, March 25, 2007

Accepted Foreigner

by Holly
It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged. Partly, I think because I didn’t have any interesting photos to go along with what’s kept me busy. I thought about taking one of me and the team of people (Anthony, Sylvia, Charles, Godfrey, Ben) who were working on one of two intense proposals we’ve done this year. It would have had all of us gathered around a computer very late at night and pulling out our hair and gritting our teeth. The title would have been, “Is this Framework Really Logical?” But, like most people, I don’t bring my camera with me for long days of office work.

Finally, I’ve broken out of the office again. I’ve been in Gulu this week monitoring the office there with the Program Manager. Ben always teases me because I love meetings so much—and I really like trying to improve systems to manage and support and supervise our staff and programs. It’s so much fun—although I sometimes want something really concrete that I can point to and say that-that’s what I do and why I’m here. We had a conversation with a friend last night who (among many other things) has installed playground equipment at a water hole near our office. I ride past everyday on the way to work on my bike. There are always kids there laughing and playing. He said how encouraging that was. I’d like to have something like that—a daily reminder that what I’m doing makes a difference to somebody. I get moments. In Gulu I spent a few hours under a mango tree in a camp talking with community members that are in a committee that protect children’s rights. In the past month because of what they’ve done one kid is back in school, another that was neglected is getting medical treatment and a girl that was sexually abused is in a safe environment. That’s wonderful—but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s facing kids in the camps.

Last week I joined the TOTs (Ben’s project) in Soroti to learn more about “Traditional and Religious Ways of Healing in Acholi and Lango.” I went to learn and to spend time with the facilitators and ask my burning questions. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about traditional ways of reconciliation and restorative justice--an integral part of healing. The instructors for the training were the key people from the traditional leadership of Lango and Acholi. The discussions were remarkably honest and I was encouraged by how progressive those entrusted with the preservation of traditions are.

Sometimes I start to feel like I’ve really adjusted and know the people that I work with and for and then I get a window into something deeper—something that I will never be a part of and may never understand. I was reading a book (which I hope to post about soon) about the ICC. It’s insightful, but there were times when reading it when I thought to myself, “This author doesn’t really know people here.” He’s probably spent more time with them than the majority of researchers, but still, he doesn’t understand the world view. I said this to myself with a kind of smug self-congratulatory tone—until last week when I had to confess that I don’t really know people here either. There is so much that surprises me, that seems unreal, or that even when it’s translated and explained I just can’t understand.

Once after a session where the Acholi leader was describing how to read signs of impending success or failure before leaving on a journey (like which direction birds chirp from or which toe you stub first or whether you first meet a man or woman on the road) he came up to me and asked if we had similar things. The only thing I could think of was a black cat crossing your path, but I explained that was a superstition that we don’t take very seriously and in general we don’t know how to read the noises of animals and birds. He looked at me with disbelief and said, “Do you mean to say that you just do things blindly? You have no idea what is coming and don’t try to read the signs that are there for you!” He admitted though, sometimes the signs can really disrupt life. What do you tell your boss when you don’t go on a business trip because the morning you were meant to leave you stubbed your left toe instead of your right and met the opposite sex of your first born child when you walked down the street? I’ve never felt particularly blind, but maybe I am. Could it be that in the physical world there are messages that if interpreted could guide us in constructive ways and avoid danger?

One night we practiced Wang Oo a communal time of gathering around the fire at night. It’s a time to educate the young children, to tell stories and riddles, share local brew, dance, and “deceive the hunger” while you wait to eat supper. Though I sat as the women should slightly away from the fire (traditionally to avoid eye contact with men who might want an “appointment”) with bare feet on a grass mat and shelled g-nuts and told riddles—I felt very much a foreigner. I was taught a riddle so that I could share it. “Two birds crossed the sea.” The answer is “eyes.” I don’t understand. Apparently, that’s really hilarious—but I have no idea why. All night I laughed with our friends but mostly because I loved the shared joy. Whenever the jokes were translated (or even when they were simple enough for me to catch in Luo) I rarely understood why they were funny—but I was so happy to be an accepted member of the circle around the fire.


JT said...

Relativism can be a dangerous thing, Holly, darling. Stick to reason. Uganda (and most of the world) is never going to have a functioning economy or peace if people make major decisions based on total superstition.

Holly & Ben Porter said...

true, but I don't understand some of the "signs" well enough to judge if they are all superstition or if some of them are reading the natural world--like animal and bird noises. I don't understand it, but don't dogs bark more before rain storms and things like that, maybe there are lots of things like that and most of us just don't pay attention or know how to interpret it. Reason is of course important, but I don't think it's the only thing that helps us understand.

JT said...

Whew, I was scared a little when I read your post. I'm glad you're not going to start worrying about walking under ladders and whatnot.

I miss the way it smells in Colorado before it rains. Here, it's humid all the time and so you can't tell if the rain is coming until it's here.

jim peterson said...

Not sure I'm ready to put stock in which toe I stub, but I do think there are many more qualities to Gods voice then what reason and logic alone can perceive, understand, or explain. It would probably do us well to learn to listen to and see things we may be inclinded to disregard. Logic and reason are essential tools, but they are not the only essential tools. Thank you for wondering aloud so we can be challenged by the questions along with you. "...keep it open, keep it open, and help me keep mine open too..." (Bruce Cockburn) - with prayerful wonder and love, jim

jim peterson said...

Yes! The smell of the rain! ...and don't forget the beautiful muffled, silent "sound" you can hear when certain snow storms are approaching, especially those really cold windless slow moving snow storms with the huge flakes that gently begin floating ever so slowly to earth! - jim p

Holly & Ben Porter said...

Exactly Jim! Unfortunatley, the qualities of God's voice that we are able to detect are limited to what we've been taught to listen to by our culture. I want to learn to hear in as many ways (including logic and reason)as possible so that I don't miss out on the communication.

The rain here has more the scent of grateful dry red earth waking up. You can almost smell how long it's waited for the relief.

Anthony & Nicole said...

That's so beautiful..."the scent of grateful dry red earth waking up". I can almost smell it myself!

I also love that first breath of spring. The one you'd miss if you don't spend much time outside. Everything still looks frosty and cold. But somehow in one moment there's a change. You can just feel it in the air...winter is broken, spring is begun! Maybe it's something in the light, it's not quite so steril, the sun is just a touch higher in the sky and th shadows aren't quite so long. Then the birds begin to sing again in the morning and the feilds are dotted with new calves in the grass. Then the faintest tint of green buds is on the trees. I love it!

Miss you a lot!

Al said...

Good to meet you last night. I promised Ben that I would pass along details on John and Charlene Wieler, who are now in Lusaka. Their blogspot is Hope you connect with them.

Al Kehler